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How a congressman’s challenge to New Jersey’s first lady is shaking up a key Senate race

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. (AP) — When New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy walked up to Rep. Andy Kim last weekend to congratulate him with a handshake after his third consecutive win in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat, the goodwill gesture represented a surprise within a surprise.

The Senate seat only became competitive because incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez had been unexpectedly indicted last year on federal corruption charges. And Kim's wins in three state county committee votes so far have fueled sudden momentum for the mild-mannered three-term congressman, who is mounting a more formidable challenge than is typical against a well-connected political figure in a state where connections count for a lot.

That matters in the Democratic stronghold of New Jersey, where Democratic primaries often decide elections — and where primary winners are sometimes chosen by party leaders in behind-the-scenes gatherings well ahead of the primaries themselves. Kim sued this week in federal court to challenge the way counties draw ballots to favor candidates with party support.

As surprising as they were, Kim's wins in three counties so far, including his and the first lady’s home turf, hardly settle anything. Murphy, who comes from the world of high finance and has spent years cultivating allies among state party leaders, has already secured the support of party bosses in the more populous counties of Bergen, Camden and Essex.

Menendez, meanwhile, has yet to declare whether he will seek another term, though the charges against him have generated spectacular headlines. They are seen by many to be career-ending, though he has pleaded not guilty and projected a defiant stance as turmoil suddenly engulfed a seat that had long been seen as safe for Democrats.

Tough race for Democratic nomination

Still, the wins by Kim suggest that the race for the Democratic nomination won't be easy for anyone. It pits Kim, perhaps best known for being spotted cleaning debris from the U.S. Capitol after the Jan. 6 insurrection three years ago, against Murphy, who is married to Gov. Phil Murphy and has made maternal mortality her signature issue in her role as first lady.

Kim's lawsuit signals that he still believes New Jersey's way of giving better ballot positioning to candidates favored by local insiders could give Murphy an unfair advantage, a view shared by many political observers.

“We do not have competitive primaries. We in theory have them, but in practice we have party leaders who get behind closed doors and the nominee is presented to the public as a fait accompli. This is your candidate, love it or lump it,” said Daniel Cassino, executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll. “The fact that we’re actually having this primary is a sign something has gone awry.”

The competition between Kim and Murphy began almost as soon as the Menendez indictment was announced. It gave New Jersey a rare competitive Democratic primary for one of only three statewide seats — the others, for a second Senate seat and governor, aren’t on the ballot this year.

The seat may yet remain in Democratic hands, but a contentious campaign could consume energy and resources as the party gears up for a grinding presidential campaign and the larger fight to control Congress.

Kim cast his candidacy in terms of the public's distrust of officials and party insiders, pointing specifically to Menendez's indictments. A 2015 federal corruption indictment against Menendez ended in a hung jury and with prosecutors dropping the case. The concern, Kim said in an interview, is that progressive Democrats who oppose the party bosses' influence and independents might sit out the November election if they think Murphy's candidacy was foisted on them.

“If the Democrats don’t fix this and show that this is a credible and legitimate process, I think that this Senate seat could be in jeopardy this November. And I think that that’s something I absolutely refuse to see happen because I’ve been there in Congress. I know exactly what the Republicans would do if they have the majority in the Senate,” Kim said.

Tammy Murphy, who worked at Goldman Sachs briefly and helped start a policy think tank in New Jersey, pushed back at the notion that the support she has is based on her marriage to Phil. She said Saturday she isn't asking for his help. She also defended her departure from the Republican Party, which she left shortly before her husband's run for governor in 2017.

“I’ve been on the ground for the last eight years, literally building the party," she said. "I’ve shown up serially in all these, all the red counties where they needed help. I showed up."

She added: “Many people are leaving the Republican Party here now, and I will tell you, I have stood for the same values since day one. Absolutely the same values.”

GOP hopes

The possibility of Republicans picking up the seat in November is overblown, Cassino said, in large part because the state tilts so overwhelmingly Democratic and because it's an election year. Ben Dworkin, who heads the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship, echoed that sentiment, pointing out Republicans haven't been elected to the Senate in New Jersey since 1972.

Republicans are grappling with their own primary, featuring southern New Jersey businessman Curtis Bashaw, Mendham Mayor Christine Serrano Glassner and former TV news reporter Alex Zdan. Also running in the Democratic primary are labor leader Patricia Campos-Medina and civil rights activist Lawrence Hamm.

Shortly before the Burlington Democratic Party results were announced Saturday, voters leaving the hall greeted each other with smiles and hugs. Kim and Murphy both stopped to chat with people.

Murphy had talked earlier in the day about needing to send “ticked off” moms to Washington to fight for families. Kim had focused on being a county native and said he'd fight for the state particularly in light of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and the threat to the country's democracy.

A number of voters acknowledged the awkwardness of having the first lady and their congressman competing and declined to say which one they supported. But they sounded more certain about their resolve to win in November.

“We’ll come together," said Gina LaPlaca, a local official in Burlington County. "The threat from Republicans is too much.”

Mike Catalini, The Associated Press